More than two decades ago, the rush to enact federal mandatory minimum drug sentences was driven in part by the drug-related death of University of Maryland student Len Bias who had been a first round NBA draft pick of the Boston Celtics and was thought to have died from an overdose of crack cocaine. At that moment, Maryland became the focal point for the continuing saga of the government’s “war on drugs.”
Since that time, communities of color, especially African-American and Latino communities have been disproportionately impacted by the “war on drugs.” From racial profiling to arrests, incarceration and post-conviction sanctions, to access to drug treatment and infectious disease prevention, poor communities of color are being devastated by punitive drug policies.
Well awhile back I had an audacious idea that I believe to be an essential first step in stopping the War on Drugs: create a positive space – free of judgment, bias and ridicule – for people to share their experiences about the impact drugs and the subsequent punitive drug policies have had on their lives. The idea while simple was foreign to those in the drug reform movement seven years ago, but I am happy to report that the idea took root and sprouted into a meaningful exchange of ideas, that has left thousands fired up, transformed and engaged where they once were silent observers. So the second audacious idea was to work with community groups to help bring the conference to Baltimore.
Baltimore presents a great lens through which to examine the impact of punitive drug policies on communities of color as well as innovative and effective alternatives that can reduce drug abuse and crime as well as enhance community and family life. I’m confident that in the coming years we will see greater involvement of people of color in the movement to reform these policies, and I hope the idea of the conference will be the catalyst for this movement.